Friday, April 5, 2013

Undefeated (2011)

1 Nomination, 1 Win

Win: Best Documentary, Features - Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin, and Rich Middlemas

While I remain a stoic in even the most tragic circumstances in real life, I'm capable of turning into a weeping idiot at the climax of a good sports movie.  Hoosiers, Rudy, Rocky, hell, even The Mighty Ducks can make me tear up in a way that the real world rarely can.  Yet any embarrassment I feel about this admission reached an all-time high when I found myself choked up on an airplane while watching Undefeated on my iPad.  There's nothing like surreptitiously wiping away tears while sitting between a traveling salesman pounding back Maker's Marks and a young man watching The Deadliest Catch on the in-flight television to make me question my manhood.

Undefeated documents one season in the life of the Manassas Tigers football team, a high school team in a severely economically disadvantaged part of Memphis, Tennessee.  The Tigers have long been the laughingstock of local high school football, the team that better and richer teams turn to when they're looking for a patsy to hang a half dozen touchdowns on for their homecoming games.  As a result of a dedicated and inspiring coach and the leadership of a particularly gifted group of seniors, the Tigers stand poised at the film's outset to have the best season in the team's history.

The film has often been described as a real life Friday Night Lights, and in many ways this is an accurate description, as long as the reference is to the Buzz Bissinger book and not the wonderful but sometimes soapy television series (I'm looking at you, whoever wrote the story arc involving Landry killing a man).  While the TV show focused on the dramas of the player's personal lives, the book was an exploration of class, race, and of course football.  The filmmakers behind Undefeated similarly explore several complex issues, but like in Bissinger's book, these issues are always explored within the context of the story being told.  Remarkably, the film never for a moment loses its focus on the story and the individuals at the films' center, showing incredible maturity and talent on the part of the filmmakers.

Despite all of the greater issues being addressed, Undefeated is at its heart a sports film, and I knew from the beginning that the film would follow one of two formulas: the team would victoriously achieve its goal a la Hoosiers, or nobly fall short a la Rocky (don't worry, I won't reveal which is the case).  While this structure came as no surprise, the journeys of the film's subjects were far more surprising, and one particular moment was so surprisingly joyful that it left me in the aforementioned tears.

Of the four films I have seen that received nominations in the Best Documentary Feature category at the 84th Academy Awards, Undefeated is by far my favorite, and it might just be my favorite film of the year, with only The Tree of Life offering a challenge.  It is a superb documentary, handling weighty and difficult issues with maturity while still telling a thrilling story.  In every possible way, Undefeated exceeded my expectations, and I can even forgive it for embarrassing me in public.

Remaining: 3156 films, 873 Oscars, 5426 nominations

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